Ah yes, Talladega. A nail-biting weekend if there was ever one. The Spring race weekend once held the nickname of “White Knuckle Weekend.” Every race there gives you that feeling, in person or on NBC.
Last weekend was huge for Talladega. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. having his final run on the high banks, Alabama went all out. Governor Kay Ivey proclaimed race day as “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day” in all of Alabama. This car was then given to Earnhardt Jr. on permanent loan:
— Phil Allaway (@Critic84) October 14, 2017
Note that the cars in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s permanent collection are all property of the state of Alabama. Seriously, there are serial numbers on the cars that indicate Alabama’s ownership of them. The Monte Carlo Earnhardt Jr. was given is no exception to the rule.
What does this barrage of Earnhardt celebration have to do with television? The sport’s Most Popular Driver was in the house on Sunday and had a chance to win. That made it a central story and created a likely audience surge for NBC.
There was plenty of Earnhardt Jr. coverage to go around on Sunday. There were discussions of how his career is winding down, coverage of the aforementioned automotive present, and a pre-race interview. Earnhardt Jr. also had an in-car camera and originally was going to have the helmet cam. However, Earnhardt Jr. discovered that the device negatively affected his vision.
I won’t be running the helmet cam during Sunday’s race. It obstructs my view of the corner and the rear view mirror too much.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) October 13, 2017
Oh well. It happens. Given what we know now, had Earnhardt Jr. been able to make the Helmet Cam work for him, it would have been a very interesting view on NBC.
As the race continued on, the amount of Earnhardt Jr. coverage increased. It is arguable that it was simply because so many people got eliminated. However, that likely would have happened anyway without the wrecks. It wasn’t like the booth didn’t acknowledge other drivers out there. Earnhardt Jr. just simply got the lion’s share of attention. I expected that going in and in this case, I’m OK with it.
That said, Sunday’s Alabama 500 was one of the most frustrating Cup races I’ve ever watched, and it had nothing to do with Earnhardt Jr. The constant wrecking in the second half of the race and NASCAR’s ludicrous damaged vehicle policy resulted in only 14 finishers, the lowest number since 1986. While there were wrecks in that 1986 Talladega 500, most DNFs back then were due to mechanical issues.
Back in February, we talked about the then-recently announced damaged vehicle policy in an edition of Friday Faceoff. My entry didn’t make the cut at the time, but I’ll reproduce what I wrote here.
Hopefully, it won’t come into play all that much. But when it does, it is complete lunacy and it’s only going to take a couple of weeks for NASCAR to see how terrible of an idea it is. At one of the nine restrictor plate races in NASCAR’s National Series this year, you will see less than a dozen cars finish a race because of this rule. When that happens (and it will, probably at Daytona in a couple of weeks), NASCAR’s going to have egg on their face. They’ll claim the new rules are working, but you’ll see so much anger from fans and even the teams themselves that it won’t matter. I can understand the idea of cutting costs, but this has been done in a very confusing way (like everything else this offseason).
While it wasn’t quite as bad as I predicted back then, Sunday was that race. The wrecking in the last 150 miles Sunday was over the top and drove me nuts. I can’t claim to have ever driven at those speeds in anything other than a video game, but the wrecks were looney. And to think that Sunday wasn’t a cutoff race. If it was, then we probably would have had a Ricky Bobby-Jean Girard footrace for the win.
Wrecking aside, there are other aspects of the broadcast that should be covered. The first is pit strategy. As you likely saw on Sunday, the Fords tended to pit together at regular intervals. But there was no real discussion as to when these stops were going to take place prior to the race. It just happened. No mention of pitting at all in the first 14 laps, then boom, the leaders are in like it was nothing. NBC needs to be on top of that for their next plate race in July at Daytona.
Also of note, viewers watching the race would have had no clue what took a number of drivers out. For instance, Justin Marks smacked the wall on his own on lap 16 and was forced to pit. This contact never made air and was not referenced on the broadcast. Neither was the penalty for having too many men over the wall that got him parked as per the damaged vehicle policy. A similar penalty got DJ Kennington parked later on, but we know why he needed repairs.
Since the wrecking resulted in the race running long by something like an hour, the coverage on NBC ended before Brad Keselowski even finished his donuts. That’s rather weak, but understandable. Watching on Sunday, I was thinking that NBC was going to boot the race to NBCSN only at 6 p.m. (After that point, the race was simulcasted between the two channels). But that did not come to pass.
Once the actual post-race coverage started, it was somewhat typical. Viewers got a number of post-race interviews, discussion of the playoffs headed to Kansas and more. There was nothing really unusual other than a slightly higher quotient of Earnhardt Jr. than normal.
Sunday’s Alabama 500 was irritating to watch, but it wasn’t really NBC’s fault. The current rules in NASCAR caused a lot of the nightmares that you saw. It is simply ludicrous. Considering that, NBC did fine with what they were given. With all the crashing, there wasn’t too much focus on the playoffs since so many contenders got eliminated. By the finish, it was nothing short of survival. Never seen a Cup race quite like that and hope I don’t see another like it anytime soon. It’s one thing to have one big wreck, but to effectively have six wrecks back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back ruins a race.
On Saturday, the Camping World Truck Series made their third and final appearance of 2017 on FOX. Kevin Harvick joined the broadcast booth for another interesting 250-mile race. But while the grass was claimed, the broadcast glory went unclaimed.
Unlike the Cup race, Saturday was a cutoff event for the Camping World Truck Series. As a result, NCWTS Setup was full of interviews with playoff contenders and discussion of the postseason. It was understandable, but a bit much at times.
Harvick was in the broadcast booth in place of Phil Parsons. Parsons served as a third pit reporter alongside Hermie Sadler and Kaitlyn Vincie. In Vincie’s case, it was her first race back after maternity leave. Vincie lost absolutely nothing in her absence.
Having Harvick in the booth actually did benefit the broadcast. The 2014 Cup champion brought his knowledge of racing in the draft and playoff knowledge to the forefront. It was really quite helpful at times. Based on what we’ve seen from Harvick’s guest analyst stints for XFINITY races earlier this year, viewers were in good hands. It’s as if Harvick doesn’t feel any pressure in the booth. As a result, he can be cordial and outright charming at times there. Not so much on race day in the No. 4, though.
During the race, a big issue was the new flaps on the truck beds coming open in the draft. For NEMCO Motorsports, it was a problem in qualifying as well. That ultimately ended up happening so often the broadcast stopped talking about it 20 or so laps into the race. However, I would have liked to see a little more time spent on that since it came about after Daytona in February. NASCAR was apparently going to take some trucks to the wind tunnel to see how they work and whether some new parts could be created in order to prevent flop-open. We’ll have to see how that ultimately works out.
As the race wound on, the playoff focus intensified substantially. Much of the last 10 laps was the broadcast going on and on about John Hunter Nemechek and what he needed to do with his beat-up No. 8 to knock Chase Briscoe out of the Round of 6. The FOX Box ceased showing the running order for laps at a time. Instead, they showed the points as they ran permanently.
Heck no! Let’s face some facts, chaps. Not everyone watching the race on Saturday gives a tuchis about these playoffs. Doubly so since this race was on FOX instead of FOX Sports 1.
If the year were 1991, maybe I would have been fine with such an approach. However, in this era of permanent on-screen running orders, eliminating them is far from ideal. NBC Sports has a much better setup with their little points pylon. Even if it is a bit intrusive, it isn’t ridiculous.
On the plus side, the wide-open nature of Talladega meant that some drivers got way more coverage than they normally would. Race winner Parker Kligerman is just one example. Henderson Motorsports may be part-time these days, but they sure run decently when they show up. Another example was Clay Greenfield, who ran very well on Saturday. It’s a man who owns a sealcoating business and races on the side.
Despite his limited means, Greenfield was right up there in the hunt. He earned the right to be there and likely would have finished up front even without the wrecks.
Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the broadcast had run long. Viewers got interviews with Kligerman and the aforementioned chaps on the cutoff. That was just about it before FOX left Talladega.
As many of you are aware, over-the-air broadcasts of Camping World Truck Series races can cause some problems. We asked FOX Sports’ Megan Englehart if there were any pre-emptions. The reply we received indicated that five markets were airing the race on alternate networks. After checking the listings for those markets, I personally only found two that moved the race off FOX to make way for college football. Both of those markets (Greensboro and Salt Lake City) aired the race on a digital sub-channel of their FOX affiliate. As for the other markets indicated (Cedar Rapids, Erie, and Tallahassee), listings indicated that their FOX affiliates actually aired the race.
Overall, the actual coverage of racing was pretty good on Saturday. Harvick did a great job. However, the playoff focus was over the top and irritating at times. It detracted from the rest of the race, especially late in the going.
Think of it this way. For the Camping World Truck Series, they’re on broadcast television the same amount now as they were in 1995 for the inaugural season. As a result, being on over-the-air TV means that the broadcast should be a showcase of the series. Instead, we got a showcase of the playoff cutoff. That simply isn’t the way that it should be.
That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series will be back in action at Kansas Speedway. For Cup teams, it is their final race in the Round of 12. Meanwhile, Formula One makes their sixth visit to Circuit of the Americas in Texas for the United States Grand Prix. Finally, the European Le Mans Series is back in action at Portimao in Portugal.
Next week, we’ll have critiques of the Cup and XFINITY races from Kansas here in Couch Potato Tuesday.
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About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.